A Town Like Alice

A Town Like AliceLast night I finished Nevil Shute‘s 1950 novel “A Town Like Alice“. I had very little idea what the story was about before opening the book, which is perhaps the best way to start any read. I’m not even certain how I found my way to this book. It might have been something as stupid as having heard the catchy 1982 The Jam song, “Town Called Malice” (which has nothing to do with the book). Whatever the reason, after seeing a great deal of positive reviews on Amazon.com, I got a copy and proceeded to read. I’m glad that I did.

The story revolves around a woman named Jean Paget, who comes into a large some of money when an uncle (that she met once as a child) dies alone in Scotland following WWII. The trustor, an older gentleman named Noel Strachan (who drapes a melancholy pall over the entire book), finds the sole heir and takes her under his wing. As the paperwork is settled, he befriends the young woman and learns about her harrowing past during the war, where she partook in a death-march around Japanese-occupied Malaya. It was during this period that she met an Australian prisoner-of-war named Joe Harmon, who did his best to steal food for the starving women and children on the march, but ultimately paid the price for his efforts.

There is a great deal more to the story, but I’d be doing readers unfamiliar with the book a disservice by revealing anything more. I will note however that the book wanders a bit. I guess this is inevitable since it follows a person’s life across a number of years but there are long sections (it’s not a very big book) that had me wondering “how does this add to the story?”. I can only assume that Shute included more than he needed as a testament to the real-life people that he’d met and modeled the characters after, e.g., Carry Geysel and Herbert Edwards. The hardships endured by the story’s main characters are impressive; the fact that they fall shy of the events that inspired them are astonishing.

“You won’t know if [your time] was wasted until you come to the end of your life,” I said. “Perhaps not then.”

4 out of 5


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